Made in between the perhaps more conventional Hitchcock works To Catch A Thief and The Man Who Knew Too Much is this very nonconventional entry into the Master of Suspense’s filmography. Apart from the director’s penchant for sly dark humor, the film breaks with most of the common elements you normally associate with his films. The plot revolves around a murder, but there’s never really a sense of urgency as to who killed him or why. The comedic elements are heightened and there are no prolonged stretches of tension (much of the humor revolves around the constant changes of heart from everyone over what to do with the body, and so the title character ends up getting buried, dug up, and reburied several times over the course of the film). The usual blonde heroine is nowhere to be found, replaced by red-headed Shirley MacLaine (in her first film). Her upbeat persona fits right in with the tone the film is going for, and her indifferent reaction to the body is one of the film’s highlights.
The setting is a small, peaceful town in autumn, which creates a pastoral atmosphere that stands apart from Hitchcock’s more urban-oriented narratives, and one that contributes to the film’s low-key charm. Bernard Herrmann’s score also is a perfect complement, and it’s nice to hear a more playful score compared to the ones heard in Hitchcock’s other, more serious, films. The film’s laidback nature makes it seem like more of a trifle than anything that could be measured up to the great Hitchcock works, but its lightness is a big part of its charm. There’s a kind of tossed-off feel to the whole thing, as if Hitchcock just felt like having fun and trying something different for one film before getting back to serious business. Yet, most directors wish they could craft something as delightful and easygoing as this and make it seem so completely effortless. 7/10.
Just as The Trouble With Harry was an atypical work from Alfred Hitchcock, so too does this 2006 film from Park Chan-wook, best known for his “Vengeance” trilogy, stand apart from the rest of his work in a large number of ways. The film centers around Cha Young-goon, a young woman who, through various psychological complications from her past, believes herself to be a cyborg. After being checked in to a mental hospital, she refuses to eat any of her meals, convinced that it will disrupt the complex machinery that keeps her running. Because of this, she starts to starve, drawing the concern of both the doctors and the patients. Despite the subject matter and the setting, the film has a considerably lighter tone than the rest of Park’s work, which is a nice change of pace for him even though it’s clear throughout that he isn’t as sure-footed operating with the new type of material. The result is a little like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, only with more focus on the quirks of the various patients and without the presence of Nurse Ratched to steer the action into darker territory.
Too much of the film revolves around quirky behavior and not much else. Other than a handful of visually arresting sequences where Cha Young-goon imagines using her cyborg powers to gun down the hospital orderlies, fulfilling Park’s thirst for bloodshed, the film is meandering and patience-testing. Only in the last half-hour does Park finally hit on the right balance, when another patient (played by Korean pop star Rain) decides to take a more active interest in helping Cha Young-goon sort through her problems. There’s an absolutely wonderful scene when he pretends to install an “energy converter” into her back, so she can convert the food she eats into energy. And then right after that scene is another successful moment where all the other inmates watch in anticipation as she tests to see if the “installation” was successful. Still, to get to those moments you have to sift through over an hour of aimless material, and in the end it’s not really worth the hassle. 4/10.
One of the big pleasures of reading through Roger Ebert’s Great Movies collection is reading about films I haven’t seen yet, and then tracking them down myself. Ebert’s great movie review of Fritz Lang’s 1953 film The Big Heat is a particularly interesting one, as it focuses on the sinister edges present in a character who at first glance appears to be a straight arrow. After viewing the film, I had to ask myself if my perception of Glenn Ford’s central character Detective Dave Bannion was directly influenced by Ebert’s writings, or if I would have made the same inferences on my own. I have a feeling I would have perceived the same undercurrent. Ford plays a police detective who decides to stand up against a powerful crime syndicate, even if it means endangering himself, his family, and anyone else who crosses his path in the process. He knows that the syndicate is “too big to fail,” is in the pockets of just about everybody in town, but that doesn’t stop him from naively pursuing his one-man mission and sacrificing lives other than his in the process. Maybe he truly believes that there won’t be personal repercussions for his actions. Or maybe, and this is more likely, he just figures his mission will inevitably have a few casualties, and he’s willing to sacrifice a few lives as long as he gets to keep his own.
Ford is backed up by a couple of strong supporting performances from Gloria Grahame, as a woman caught in the middle of the struggle, and Lee Marvin, as a particularly dangerous henchman. It’s not a perfect film; the idea that a crime syndicate would allow a widow to blackmail them with her husband’s confession letter locked away in a safe deposit box doesn’t seem likely, and the ending doesn’t quite ring true either. And even though Ford’s character is fascinating, in the end it’s Grahame and Marvin who command the attention whenever they’re onscreen. Still, it remains a compelling watch, especially when the darkest corners of the narrative reveal themselves and take center stage. 8/10.
There is a certain subsection of noir that revolves around the big heist, and this subsection has inspired a long history of both great and not-so-great entries, most of them using the same standard elements. This John Huston film from 1950 functions both as a terrific noir and as a terrific heist picture, and one of the earliest standout examples of the latter. Sterling Hayden leads a cast of gruff character actors as a down-on-his luck lowlife who is offered the opportunity to participate in a big heist. Once the heist is completed, however, tensions rise and people are betrayed, and there is a good chance by the end that most of the characters will either be in prison or dead. If that plot sounds a little overly familiar, it’s probably because so many subsequent films have essentially used its basics as the template for their own stories. You can see at least a little of its influence in many of the classic crime films of the ’50s and beyond, especially Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (which also starred Hayden), Jules Dassin’s Rififi and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur and later on Le Cercle Rouge.
Huston’s film is a little more rough around the edges, and it perhaps doesn’t reach quite the same heights as those aforementioned films, but it manages to have its own distinctive qualities to separate it positively from the others. In a film mostly dominated by men working with and then backstabbing other men, enough time is made for two women to make an impression. It took me awhile to place where I’d previously seen Jean Hagen, until I realized she was the helium-voiced Lina Lamont in Singin’ In The Rain. Her role here is very different from that Oscar-nominated performance. There’s also an early role for Marilyn Monroe, who despite being in only a couple of scenes already lights up the screen in that way that only she could really do. Because the general outlines of these kinds of films are usually so similar, the little details start to stand out as more essential, and The Asphalt Jungle has more than enough of those little details to stand on its own. 8/10.
First things first, this is undeniably a film by Park Chan-wook, and that alone is worth celebrating, because it could have easily not been the case. I admittedly haven’t seen The Last Stand, the Arnold Schwarzenegger comeback vehicle and the English-language debut of South Korean filmmaker Kim Jee-woon, but everything I heard about that film suggested a director-for-hire effort that didn’t measure up to the director’s usual standards. Despite also moving over into the English language for the first time, Park’s style has not been compromised at all; the film is as dark and stylish and unconventional as his most notorious Korean productions. It’s also a much more focused effort, which is something that always been somewhat of a problem for me with Park’s work; too often there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason behind his stylistic flourishes, and they end up serving more as a distraction rather than as a complement to the other elements of the narrative.
With Stoker, Park’s stylistic choices, especially shot composition and multi-stranded editing, fit perfectly for the kind of narrative he is telling. One of my favorite moments involves three characters having a conversation despite being in three separate rooms. It’s a terrific way of visually expressing their three distinct personalities and how each of them remain distant from each other while occupying the same house. Speaking of the personalities, the three main performances from Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, and Nicole Kidman are all strong. Goode in particular is a standout, bringing back some of the menace he projected in The Lookout. While it isn’t that hard to figure out where the film is going right from the get go, it’s definitely the kind of film where it’s not so much what it’s about as how it’s about. And after watching the trailers with apprehension and worrying whether or not Park’s style would translate over to the English language, it was really encouraging to see him pull it off so well. 8/10.
It’s amazing how engaging it is just listening to people talk about film. This documentary, over the course of about 100 minutes, surrenders you to the opinions of a handful of obsessive people, who go into great detail about the hidden meanings in Stanley Kubrick’s classic horror film The Shining. The people are never pictured onscreen, with the film relying entirely on voiceovers over film footage. Like Red Letter Media’s dissection of the Star Wars prequels, Room 237 offers up an oftentimes comedic film analysis. But while Red Letter Media’s work has a good amount of truth alongside all the goofiness, the opinions in this film hardly ever feel close to reality. Only a few points, such as the hidden theme of Native American genocide, are plausible in any way; most of them stretch the bounds of credibility so far you’re likely to find them more exasperating than interesting, none more so than when someone starts to talk about Kubrick intentionally superimposing his face into the clouds for a frame in the opening sequence. Another person believes that the film is Kubrick’s confession that he faked the Apollo moon landing. And yet another person talks about projecting the film both forward and backward at the same time on the same screen. and we are shown this in action as certain images overlap to create a kind of unintentional symmetry (this section is actually interesting in a meaningless but quite hypnotic kind of way).
Truthfully though, the film is less about the secret layers of The Shining and more about critical theory, and how people from different backgrounds can approach a film and have their interests inform their readings of the film’s true meaning. One person who has an interest in the Holocaust will see a reference to Nazism in the type of typewriter Jack uses, while another who has an interest in Native American history will see a can of baking soda with a Native American logo in the background and conclude the film is about coming to terms with the mass killing of Native Americans. Maybe it speaks to the enduring power of Kubrick’s work that people can still obsess over its hidden meanings so many years later, but this kind of obsession isn’t exclusive to this one film in particular. Thought-provoking analysis is one of the real joys that comes along with watching films, and this documentary is a nice representation of that joy. 7/10.
Top ten first-time viewings in March 2013:
Out Of The Past
Like Someone In Love
The Asphalt Jungle
This Is Not A Film
The Big Heat